When an established group with a number of albums to its credit releases a self-titled album, it’s often meant to indicate a return to basics (paging Metallica…). For Scott McCaughey, chief cook and bottle washer for Seattle indie rock collective Minus 5, an eponymous album (seventh, to be exact) doesn’t represent a refocusing after a handful of lackluster releases (hardly!), but rather a summation of the Minus 5’s output over the last ten years. Call The Minus 5 a greatest hits package full of all new tunes.
To clarify the above “hardly!”: Since 2003, McCaughey has been on one of the more incredible and enjoyable below-the-radar rolls in recent memory: joining forces with indie rock darlings Wilco for the chamber power pop (to coin a genre) Down with Wilco, and remastering an old tour-only record that recalled his garage days with the Young Fresh Fellows (2004’s In Rock). Even 2005’s At the Organ EP felt like a complete thought and not a stopgap release. Given that recent track record, expectations — at least among the dozen or so of us who love the band – have been high and McCaughey doesn’t disappoint.
It should be noted that the Minus 5 is not a one-man show. In fact, McCaughey’s put together quite the indie rock murderer’s row for The Minus 5 — regular M5 contributors like Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Ken Stringfellow (the Posies), John Ramberg (the Model Rockets) and the Wilco crew have been joined by newcomers Kelly Hogan, Sean Nelson (the Long Winters) and Colin Meloy (the Decemberists). You’d think that McCaughey, with as many friends as he has, would be in a good mood, but The Minus 5 finds him as defeatist and down at the heels – but tunefully so – as ever.
As mentioned above, The Minus 5 serves as a sort of career overview. Fans of his earlier, quieter songs will enjoy the bleak “Bought a Rope” and the pretty, steel guitar-led “All Worn Out” (neither of which are as tiring as their titles might suggest). And while Colin Meloy might not be an obvious candidate to join the M5 fraternity (at least compared to, say, Wilco), Meloy’s lush vocal turn on the piano and steel guitar ballad “Cemetery Row” is inspired, invoking McCaughey’s more baroque tendencies.
Those who dig the fuzzed-out surf-garage of In Rock will cotton to “Aw Shit Man”, a punked-up ode to midlife crises (“Am I going to be an asshole for the rest of my life? / Aw shit man / And never be forgiven by my daughter and wife / Aw shit man”). Admittedly, the tune doesn’t fit with the rest of the album — at least sonically; thematically, it’s right in McCaughey’s wheelhouse — but it’s always fun to hear McCaughey cut loose on a tune. Meanwhile, McCaughey the drunk, bitter, rueful power popper turns in the hilarious, jangly drinking song “Out There On the Maroon” (the tunes opens with “I had six White Russians tonight / And two of them were people”), “My Life as a Creep” and “Twilight Distillery” (“I’m sticking with whatever fails,” which could double as the band’s motto).
McCaughey also indulges his dusty alt-country side too, joining with Wilco for the midtempo “With a Gun” — there’s a handful of gun references, both literal and metaphorical on The Minus 5; enough for the album to be subtitled The Gun Album. There’s (another) steel guitar number, “Cigarettes, Coffee and Booze” and the swaggering tall tale closer, “Original Luke”, who has a “heart as hard as the Grand Cooley Dam”. Like I’ve been saying, there’s a tune for every Minus 5 incarnation’s fans.
I’m not sure who is handling most of the lead guitar work; I’m guessing Peter Buck. If so, it’s some of his most sprightly guitar work in years. Of course, even with all these seemingly disparate threads, The Minus 5 all comes together as a Minus 5 record, tied up in Buck’s guitar and McCaughey’s beautiful loser spirit and inventive wordplay. Nobody else quite sounds like the Minus 5, and certainly nobody celebrates defeatism and life as a fuck-up with more energy and humor than Scott McCaughey.